Regenerative farming: can producers afford not to make the change?
Farmer's Weekly|October 01, 2021
Switching from conventional farming to a regenerative agriculture system is certainly expensive. But according to a number of experts, failing to do so could end up costing you your farm. Susan Marais reports.
Susan Marais

For over a century, cheap energy and quick results have seduced farmers into producing more and caring less. But the time has come to pay the piper, and the bill is likely to put many farmers out of business.

This is the sentiment expressed by a group of scientists and farmers at the forefront of regenerative agricultural practices.

“The terms ‘crop rotation’ and ‘fallow land’ are as old as agriculture itself. Yet farmers became conceited and turned farms into factories, and this has put us in an input-cost pinch that we need to escape from,” says entomologist Prof Erik Holm.

Holm, the environmental adviser to ZZ2 and former head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Pretoria, was speaking at a recent webinar on the cost of regenerative farming. The event was hosted by Landbouweekblad and sponsored by the Maize Trust, BKB, VKB and others. “This is where regenerative farming can play a massive role. This type of farming is also known as conservation agriculture and it’s a nature-friendly way of production.

“The problem was never technology, but rather the way in which it was used. Nature-based farming embraces the best technology in harmony with the natural sciences.”

Unfortunately, this change in farming philosophy is expensive and requires overhauling the entire operation in order to embrace regenerative agriculture. Yet approximately 25% of South Africa’s cash crop farmers have already taken the plunge, while about one-third of all producers have switched from conventional tillage to conservation tillage, according to Dr. Hendrik Smith, the conservation agriculture facilitator at ASSET Research and the Maize Trust.

DEFINING REGENERATIVE AND CONSERVATION AGRICULTURE

There are many definitions for conservation agriculture and regenerative agriculture, and while there might be slight differences between the two, there appears to be a consensus on the positive impacts that these farming methods have on biodiversity in general and soil health in particular.

According to definitions used by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), conservation agriculture is a farming system that promotes minimum soil disturbance through the use of no tillage, for example; maintenance of permanent soil cover, such as through the use of cover crops; and the diversification of plant species.

Regenerative agriculture, according to the FAO, may include many of the same farming practices as those used in conservation agriculture, but it has an inclusive agroecosystems approach to conserving land, soil and biodiversity, and improving ecosystem services within farming systems.

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